The story that Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, was crucified and died, and then rose from the dead is the Easter story. Easter is a time for response. Easter calls us back to life.
When asked about your religious beliefs, do you respond with, “I’m spiritual, but not religious”? To be honest, I have spoken these words. I don’t blame one for doing so. It attempts to capture the deep intuition that what is divine can be found in what is in the experience of being human. The response reacts against a formidable set of experiences that we have of being constrained by dogmatic ideas and by traditions that seem hollow.
In my experience, Christianity has increasingly tended to preach the “disincarnate word,” (a term borrowed from Thomas Merton) that is, to reduce Christ to formal abstract concepts that ordinary people no longer find expressive of the intuition behind their everyday experiences. Yes, there has to be theology, and theology has to be abstract, at least to a degree. But the theologian should not be dealing with a cold “disincarnation” which is a mental Christ that is no longer perceptible to her when she meets her fellow person. Bad theology is when Christ is set up against being human, and regards all flesh and blood persons as “not Christ.” Indeed, much bad theology assumes that many persons, classes of people, nations, and races, are in fact “anti-Christ.” Arbitrarily dividing persons according to their conformity to our limited mental Christ and deciding on this basis that most persons are “anti-Christ” repeated shows up in our theology. It begs the question, should we not, instead of questioning humankind, question our theology instead? Any theology that ends in lovelessness cannot be Christian. It is this intuition that guides us to answer that we are “spiritual, but not religious.”
However, the religious person (also one of my many personalities) will realize that together with flesh and blood humans, “the world” is constituted by the illusions, the myths, the prejudices, and all the mental fictions with which human beings torment themselves and from which Christ came to deliver them. If our mental image of Christ does nothing to deliver the world from its confusion, this does not mean that we can find a truer light by plunging into the same confusion, which the “spiritual, but not religious” response is prone to do. What we need is a deeper understanding of Christ and the mystery of Christ’s presence in both the world and in human beings. Such an understanding will gain a truer, less arrogant, more humble, and more merciful and forgiving awareness of the true meaning of the Church and its mission to humanity.
To begin with, “the world” does not need Christian apologetics, i.e. systemic attempts to justify the Christian faith. Having been on the fringe of churches for much of my adult life, I have lived quite well without these defenses for the faith before I started to go to church again. The world has no need for Christian explanations of the world. Such apologetics explains for its own satisfaction, not for the world’s satisfaction. That is why it is absurd to approach the world with what seems to be merely a new tactic and a new plea of sincerity – a “religionless religion” that cheerfully agrees that “God is dead.”
One can answer: “So what?” The world does not need a religionless religion any more than it needs the traditional kind. The world fabricates its own religion as it goes along, and its products are far more exciting. Nazism, for instance! In a word, “the world” feels no need for God either to explain itself or to be at peace with itself or to regulate its activity. Christian apologetics struggles to maintain the place of churchpeople in the world by convincing the world it needs them. What confusion! It is an indignity that “the world” rightly regards as ridiculous. Churchpeople want to have a place in the world; that is, they want to be needed, and God is a justification for their desire.
However, a person of faith will recognize precisely that the Christian is “not of this world.” In other words, she is freed from its particular myths, idolatries, and confusion by her Christian faith. Her first mission is to live that freedom in whatever way that God gives her to live it. The Christ to whom she testifies (whether by word or silence) is the Christ of Christian freedom, Christian autonomy, and Christian independence from the arrogant demands and claims of the world as an illusion. Certainly, the Christian is not free from nature or human society. But she ought to be free from the psychological determinisms, obsessions, and myths of a mendacious, greedy, lustful, and murderous “worldly” society. In this way, she truly is an existentialist. It is this society that is governed precisely by the love of money, and the unjust, arbitrary use of power. Does such a world need God? Of course not!
The most valid intuition of the “religionless religion” is the awareness that the vast majority of people today, i.e., those who “cannot believe”, are encountering Christ, even though they cannot adjust to the idea that life acquires meaning only when one “joins the Church”. The Christ they encounter is not the Christ of theology or Christian devotion or art. It is not the Christ of “Christian civilization,” literature, ethics, or philosophy. The encountered Christ is anonymous and unknown, a personal “presence” who comes in merciful hiddenness to the distraught pilgrim, as He did to the travelers to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13 – 35). I agree with this intuition, not only on theological grounds but also by intuition and experience. There is a presence of Christ to the unbeliever, especially in our day, and this presence is perhaps the deepest and most convincing mystery of our time. The Lord, who speaks freedom in the ground of our being, continues to speak to every person.
In such a reality, there is no use trying to “get these people into the Church” or to make “believers” out of them. There is no way of bringing them a specifically Christian comfort that would, in any case, only disturb or confuse them. What is needed is to love them with a love completely divested of all formerly religious presuppositions, simply as fellow human beings who seek freedom and truth as we do. This love is not simply an act of benevolent, condescending tolerance on our part. For us, it can also be a way for us to know Christ better, by entering into the mystery of the hidden encounter which marks the lives of these others in a way that neither they nor we can understand. We cannot understand it, but through love, we can experience its reality nevertheless.
Whereas the intuition of encountering Christ is at home in the “religionless religion”, another myth that informs our current moral crises finds its home in both formal Christianity and the “religionless religion”. Thomas Merton, in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, calls this the myth of momentous choice (pp. 334 – 335). Both mainstream and counter-cultural elements employ an image of the human being – that of the firm, enlightened, decisive person who, when faced with an important choice, quickly calculates the pros and cons, decides, and then advances resolutely to carry out the decision. Simultaneously, people are to assume that these momentous decisions are to be faced with great frequency. We are always making momentous decisions, says the myth; we stand at the crossroads a couple of times a week, and decide on a new course. The traffic problem resulting from this would defy imagination. Fortunately, there is no such problem; it just does not happen.
Speaking personally, I have only executed momentous decisions very rarely, and it seemed to be that more of the decisions were made for me. I can count on one hand the number of these so-called decisions: the time when I changed from lying to more authentic behavior, discharging my son from hospital against the doctor’s advice, marrying my spouse, and becoming a professor. In every one of those cases, the option of doing something different than what I did wasn’t really an option at all; the “momentous” choice was momentous, but not really a choice. The alternatives were actually more onerous than the “choice” I made. We do not make momentous decisions. They are made for us, and we either accept or not, with good grace or not. The myth of the person (usually a man) of decision, enlightened, determined, calculating the pros and cons, with a firm jaw and ready to go – this is our consolation for being passive, petulant, confused, ineffectual, and dominated by routines.
One might suggest… shouldn’t we try to be decisive and determined? Maybe that is the source of the trouble.
The time has come to ask ourselves if this myth has not finally become so unreal, so unproductive, so paralyzing that it ought to be altogether discarded. Shouldn’t we instead replace this ideal for some more honest (authentic even), practical ideal as a center of a more realistic scheme of meaning?
Because this myth has reached its ultimate absurdity in our image of ourselves as persons of decision and determination. It is absurd because for 70 years we have had our fingers on the button which can let loose the nuclear destruction on our civilization. More insidiously, this myth informs all the buttons on our cars and in our homes that destroy the planet with comparable speed (in the case of cars) and that hand over our freedom (in the case of our “smart” homes). The ironies of this pitiable image of ourselves should alert us to the fact that there are unsolvable contradictions in our present scheme of meanings. These ironies ought to alert us to the fact that while we have been talking our heads off about freedom we have been surrendering to unfreedom.
Our myth of ourselves as persons of momentous choice is then simply a disguise for more basic falsehoods that corrupt our real motives. What are they? And who knows?
Instead of being persons of momentous choice, which I have elsewhere called “rugged individualists”, we are in reality persons of velleity (weak wishes). And our pitiable confusion is due to our total submission to desire: not desire in its strong and passionate form (as we would like to imagine), but desire in a weak, erratic, whiny, resentful, subhuman caricature. This desire seems strong because it can express itself in a symbolic use of powerful machines and technologies; however, in reality, it is flabby and dependent on things, commodities, money, and artificial stimulation.
The myth of momentous decision cloaks our pitiable lack of authentic identity and autonomy. Yet we cannot free ourselves from this illusion simply by making another momentous decision. For then the vicious circle begins all over again.
Where do we begin? Perhaps we begin by learning to admit values that we fear, from which we are trying to escape. Such values include solitude, inner silence, reflective communion with non-human realities, simple and genuine affection for other people, and admission of our need for these things. I have suggested that there is a kind of ritual that can house such values here, because we cannot, in modern life, escape confrontation with the same vicious myth. We have forgotten how to “leave things alone,” and live first of all by a simple trust. Of course, there is much more involved than this: but it might be a conceivable point of departure, a preparation for the recovery of freedom. Then “decision” would once more have a meaning.
The momentous person, as a believed myth, takes all too seriously this response of the “spiritual, but not religious.” She takes all too seriously that not believing in God, in the case of the agnostic and the atheist, is a momentous choice. One of the great intuitions of my Anabaptist upbringing (an intuition also shared with other evangelicals) is that only faith is to be taken seriously. Faith the size of a mustard seed is enough. This intuition should be seen in the humility which puts all its trust in God. Our “good works” are necessary, but they are not to be “taken seriously”. The dogmatic assertion that we are justified by faith never prescribed that good works were to be taken seriously in the sense of trusting completely her own righteousness. To take one’s good works seriously is to be a pharisee. Only faith is to be taken seriously because only the grace of God is serious. And if we put too much emphasis on the seriousness of what we do, we not only make the judgment of God the most serious reality in our life, but we are in fact judged: we are judged as persons who have taken seriously something other than God’s infinite mercy and grace. One who takes grace seriously will hardly sin seriously. One who takes her own work seriously will not be kept, by that seriousness, from sin. It is pseudo-seriousness, and it is not good enough.
What about unbelief, then: if faith is to be taken seriously, it follows that unbelief is also serious, doesn’t it? No, because in taking faith seriously, it is God whom we take seriously, not ourselves, not our faith. I do not take faith seriously as something which I definitely possess, but I take seriously God who gives me faith and renews that gift by His grace at every moment, despite my unbelief. This is one of the central intuitions of evangelical Christianity that we all must learn. It is something that mainstream Protestants have themselves forgotten, becoming obsessed with faith as it is in themselves. They are constantly watching to see if faith is still there, which means turning faith into good work and being justified, consequently, by works. To believe is to be free to trust in God quite alone, and to be free from every other form of dependence and reliance. This is true freedom, and from it springs the capacity for every good work, for it removes all obstacles to love in our hearts.